Arial picture of snow capped mountains

5 days in India

May 25, 2018

Author: Josie Sivigny

“Okay so let’s meet back here in the lobby in an hour?”

I look down at my phone to find it’s 9AM. This feels surprising, although, I’m unsure what I expected—I’ve completely lost track of time. I began my journey from Phoenix to Coimbatore, India about 36 hours ago, and the lack of sleep and abundance of protein bars has left me feeling hazy.

Before we head up to our rooms, we take a quick look over our schedule and I’m struck by the sheer number of manufacturers in the area. We started our percale sheets project in the United States where finding a mill to weave high thread count bedding is nearly impossible, but here it seems that finding manufacturers is nothing, choosing the right one will be the true challenge.

After months of fighting to build a domestic supply chain, we couldn’t ignore that our problems seemed to be getting worse rather than better. We had fallen in love with the product we made, but hiccups in the supply chain kept cropping up, causing delays in shipments, stocking us out of sizes, and creating a poor experience for our customers and team members.

This isn’t how we do business. It was time for a change.

When we started looking for alternative manufacturers, our research and recommendations kept coming back to India. Tamil Nadu, the country’s southernmost mainland state, has a rich history and booming modern day industry surrounding cotton weaving. When sampling fabric from various Indian manufacturers, it was clear that their infrastructure and expertise was just what we were searching for to create our the best and most efficient iteration of our product. All that’s left is to narrow down our potential partners.

MONDAY Cows are grazing slowly in the field outside my window as I dig in my suitcase for something to wear. I try not to think about how little I’ve slept as I lather on my mosquito repelling lotion. Working for a mattress company, I’m pretty spoiled, and don’t often get excited about sleeping in a hotel bed. At this point in the journey, the old spring relic in my room looks like a dream. I decide it makes more sense to tough it out than try for a 20 minute power nap. Jet lag can’t win if you pretend it doesn’t exist, right?

“Ready to go?”

We settle into our mini van and begin reading through emails, reminding each other of names we’ve forgotten from months-long email chains. The streets are crowded with cars, scooters, and people, but our driver doesn’t seem phased. He speeds toward a road block that forces traffic from both sides of the road through a narrow S-shape in what feels like a high stake game of chicken.

Chris, our Operations Lead, jokes that we should have just rented a car, he could have driven. We’re all too busy holding our breath to laugh. The silence is filled with incessant honking and the quiet hum of the radio—I’m acutely aware that the car sickness I haven’t experienced since childhood might be making a comeback this week.

When we finally reach our first destination, my legs are jello. We make our way through the massive grounds toward the main building and I ask how much of the building is dedicated to spinning versus weaving and sewing. I can feel the shock come across my face when they tell me that this is just where they make the yarn, we’ll have to drive to the weaving mill later in the day. Our full USA supply chain could fit into this building with room to spare.

Walking through the facility, I’m overrun with relief. Taking our manufacturing overseas is a new step for T&N, and with all change comes some hesitancy and fear that we’re making the wrong call. Touring through row after row of state of the art machinery and smiling faces, I’m starting to feel that we’re on the right path.

TUESDAY As we walk into our second sewing facility of the trip, the disparity from our tour the day before is clear. This new manufacturer with “ample capacity” we had been told about is a small, rented space in the back of a larger factory. They try to sell us on growing together, and I’m reminded of our own experience of establishing our name in a difficult industry. Despite our appreciation for being the new kid on the block, we know our goal on this trip is to find a reliable, high performing partner to improve upon our current situation—we needed something drastically bigger.

After our meeting they take us to a temple near their facility and explain each statue’s meaning and their daily prayer rituals. Everything about India so far—the scents, the driving, the food, the fast moving machinery—has been a sensory overload, but in this quiet place it was impossible to know how much was going on just outside the walls. Although I love textile manufacturing more than the average person, I’m filled with a yearning to see more of India than the intricate factories and resolve to come back someday with my own agenda.

View of a city covered in smog in India

WEDNESDAY Wednesday morning we’re greeted with bouquets and a huge printed sign with our names on it. We’re brought into a conference room with an impressive display of home goods lining the walls and small paper plates set out for each of us full of various cookies. A little queasy from the ride over, we refuse their offer for coffee, but they bring it anyway. A young woman rushes through an impressive power point presentation in broken English, and I realize she’s the first woman we’ve seen in a meeting, although she rushes out quickly as soon as her presentation is finished.

When we walk across the campus into the sewing room, we’re struck by the pristine white tables and long rows of sewing machines. Operators sit at them, but no one seems to be sewing. The single cutting table is spotless and when we ask what order they’re working on next, no one can answer us. Next door is the packing room, which is completely dark save for two lights shining down on a small, metal table where two women seem to be folding what I can only assume are the same three sheet sets over and over again—the packing box never gets any fuller.

Maybe we were a little delusional at this point, but all we could think on our way back to the van is that we had somehow entered the Twilight Zone.

After a few more underwhelming meetings and a late dinner of strategizing, the introvert in me wants to curl up alone in my hotel room and dwell in the quiet. Instead, my phone pings to remind me I have to join a conference call to brainstorm a new product. It’s 10AM at home as I dial in with a glass of wine in my hand on my patio, smelling wafts of curry from the hotel restaurant. Seeing the bright morning light of the Phoenix conference room on the screen is a jarring reminder of our distance and the work that hasn’t stopped just because I’m on the other side of the world.

This is what pure exhaustion feels like.

THURSDAY Throughout our tours we had heard about other facilities we weren’t planning on visiting, and decided to squeeze them in where we could (Because who needs time to eat?). After calling around to get a contact, we finally get ahold of the factory we were hoping to see and let them know we’re already on our way.

Unassuming and hardworking, this place seems to be the polar opposite of our strange experience the day before. As we travel up the stairs from spinning, to weaving, to sewing, we’re impressed by the lightheartedness of the place. There are fans blowing as sunlight streams in through open windows, and music blaring over the sound of the fans. The sewing machines add a rhythmic beat, and the women at the folding table are caught off guard as our presence interrupts their dancing.

This facility feels like the type of place we would want to work, and although they don’t have the capacity to take on our business, they renew our hope that we will find what we are looking for here.

Picture of peacocks next to some stair cases and on a ledge overlooking a city

FRIDAY I wake to my now-typical soundtrack of peacocks squawking before my alarm goes off and feel frustrated they’ve robbed me of my last few minutes of precious sleep. I know these are the last few hours I’ll get outside of an airplane until I’m home in just under two days of travel, and I’m already dreading the trip back. Today was originally reserved for a debrief of our trip and maybe even some light touristing on our way to the airport, but instead we decide to squeeze in one more company we heard about through our contacts.

This put our final tour count at nineteen, and I was starting to wonder if there’s such a thing as too many looms—even for someone who adores all things textile.

When we pulled up for our last tour of the trip, the modern, bright building and green grass felt more like a college campus than a bedding manufacturer. We are introduced to two members of the family who have run the mill since its inception. As they lead us through the facility, they describe the choices they’ve made over the years, like adding heat reflective roofing to keep the building cool in the summer, new machinery for added efficiency, and a temple and gardens for their employees to use during their time off.

Their sewing chairs are ergonomically considered and the space is full of light and life.

As we go through their process and describe our needs for this project, we hit a barrier when describing the corner seams of our fitted sheets. After a few failed attempts at explaining the process, I realize it’s easier to do than describe and ask if I can show them. The room rumbles with excitement and laughs as I sit down at a sewing machine to demonstrate a French seam.

Tuft & Needle employee working on a sewing machine in front of a few other fellow employees

“I have to say, we’ve never had anyone sew on any of our tours before,” the owner chuckles as I relinquish the machine back to it’s rightful operator. There is a lightness with this team, but also a drive and desire to create quality goods. It doesn’t feel all that different from working at our Head Quarters or any of our mattress manufacturers.

This is a place where we feel comfortable.

When we’ve finished the production tour, I ask for directions to the restroom on the sewing floor. I make it a point to see the women’s areas at each facility, as the workers are primarily female and have their own private areas, and we’ve found that this is the quickest way to understand a facility’s respect for the employees.

“How long have you worked here?” I ask the woman who guides me, knowing instantly she doesn’t understand me when she just smiles and nods back. The restroom is pristine, and has a nice floral hand soap, which I’ve found is not a given in India. When I open the door, the same woman is waiting to guide me back, but is now flanked by two of her friends. They all giggle in a tight circle, whispering as they lead me back to the main sewing area. Before we exit, the newest additions to our group hold out their hands to me. I outstretch mine and they each take one, squeezing them quickly and tightly, before hurrying back to their work.

We go next door to the school the factory funds for their employees’ children as well as local children from the nearby town. The line of students walking to lunch wave at us as the teacher greets the owner by name, and the facility manager points out his son to us.

Finding the perfect manufacturer for our sheets seemed like a simple task before stepping onto that first plane. We needed a place that could duplicate the product we were already producing in the US. Someone with experience in quality bedding and machinery and capacity to back it up.

But the complication comes from our desire to do business with companies we feel good about it. Sometimes they can fit all the criteria on paper, but just be missing something, as we saw several times throughout the week.

On our drive to the airport, we all sing the praises of our new manufacturing partners to the tune of the constant honking on the highway. We knew we needed to make a change for the benefit of our customers and our team, but now we’re sure we made the right call. Any nervousness I felt about the transition has completely vanished and I’m left with a sense of relief, layered over the residual car sickness.

We ended our whirlwind trip with our perfect match for this project, and as excited as I am to be sleeping on my own T&N again, I am already looking forward to our next adventure as our product offering grows.

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